Heroes and Helpers: A Look at the Animal Heroes Recognized by The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of The Poor (PDSA), with Special Mention of Max the English Spaniel (28 March 2021)


The following is an approximate transcript of the Show.

It’s been said: Tell me who your friends are, and I will tell you who you are.

 But you might also say: Tell me who your heroes are, and I will tell you what kind of a person you want to be.

Who our heroes are tells us a great deal about who we are as individuals.

Think of the days of childhood, when we would run around the house pretending to be Wonder Woman, or wearing a cape, pretending to fly and be Superman. As we grew and changed, however, so did our heroes.

Now as adults, our heroes do more standing tall and remaining firm than flying. They have faced enormous obstacles and have prevailed. They have stayed true to themselves and to their mission. They have stayed true to principle. They have stayed true in a sense to us.  

Our heroes remain unchanged, undiminished.  They remain our heroes regardless of their age or ours.

There is a benevolent organization in London, England, that is very much interested in the recognition of this kind of timeless hero. But they are not the heroes you might immediately think of when you hear the word. The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor (or, PDSA for short) was formed in 1917 to provide veterinarian treatment to the animals of people who could not afford regular veterinarian services. But they have also come to be the world leader in the recognition of heroic animals.

We will be speaking in a few minutes with Amy Dickin of the PDSA who oversees the process of the nomination of animals deserving recognition.

The PDSA itself started with a rather special lady, named Maria Dickin. (AMY tells me that there is no relation here.) Maria was born in 1870. During the First World War she volunteered to do work in the slums of London and saw the suffering of not only people, but of their animals too. Maria equated the cry of a pet with that of a fellow human. Suffering was suffering, to her mind. And she set out to help those animals of the poor that had little help by themselves. And thus was born the PDSA organization. 

Listen for a moment to Maria Dickin’s own voice as she recalls how her organization got started: Voice of Maria Dickin: (Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3A1mMVDL4oo  

Horses are, of course, central to our story, and in more than one way. Horses pulled the early mobile care carts of the PDSA, for example, to bring veterinarian aid to pets outside of the London area. You can see a picture of this on the ByTheLoveOfHorsesRadio Facebook page.  

But there was also another element here in that Maria Dickin wanted to provide recognition of the importance of animals in human lives and to raise the status of animals in society in general. In 1943 she established the PDSA Dickin Medal, which is known throughout the world as the animals’ Victorian Cross, to recognize the contributions of animals in the war effort.  Over the years, this Medal has been awarded to 4 horses, but also to 35 dogs, 32 pigeons and 1 cat. A horse named Warrior, for example, who had done extraordinary work, received an honorary PDSA Dicken medal posthumously, in recognition of all of the animals that had served in WW I. 

The PDSA sets about to recognize, however, how horses, and other animals, have served so valiantly not only in the war efforts, but also in police work, and in their devotion to their owners in more general terms. To recognize this aspect, the PDSA awards the Order of Merit, which corresponds to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire or OBE. This medal recognizes devotion to the animal’s owner or to the wider community which is [quote] “above and beyond normal companionship – and represents an exceptional example of the special relationship between animals and humans.”

We get a glimpse of just what this means in looking at two horses who have served within the Metropolitan London Police Department. The two horses, Grace and Keston, both deserve special mention. They have both received the PDSA Order of Merit.  

One of the officers, talking about these two horses, related how he could simply do his policing work without having to think about what horse he was on. And that was the goal, really. To be able to do the police work without thinking about how the horse would react. It’s that kind of dependability and calmness that made Grace and Keston such great horses within the Police service. The horse and constable formed a unit of one. An amazing achievement of unity and cooperation. They acted in the moment, went forward into a threat, they led with confidence and carried themselves and their mount confidently into the fray, to make a stand for order. These were horses that lead other horses. These were horses that were not afraid to act alone, without the company and comfort of the herd. The ability to lead, to be at the head, especially when surrounded by noise and disturbance and uncertainty: that is one true mark of an equine hero.

We might think here of just how difficult it would be for a horse to repress its own natural flight response. Its natural tendency to flee from danger would have to have been subdued.

Thus, their ability to remain calm, stoic and steadfast in the midst of great noise and confusion and even violence is heroic, indeed. There was one instance, to illustrate, where there was a fireworks rocket shot straight at a horse named Kensington. Fortunately, the rocket went straight through the legs of Kensington who managed to barely flinch! Needless to say, Kensington was another winner of the PDSA Order of Merit.

And that leads us to the question as to what else does it mean to be a hero? Because the hero is not always necessarily found in the mix of confusion and disturbance. There are also quieter heroes, if you will, whom we love and admire just as much. These are the ones that imbue us with a quieter confidence, something that acts much more quietly, under the radar so to speak, who are comforting and healing by their very presence.

And all of this leads us to speak about Max.

The story of Max is an extremely interesting one. One that we would be forgiven to take a few moments to consider, because Max is a dog. He is an English Spaniel. We might even admit that this could be seen as a moment when By The Love Of Horses turns into By The Love Of Dogs for a few minutes!

The story of Max begins with Kerry Irving, who lives in the Lake District of England. Kerry found great relief from his anxiety and depression because of the companionship of a neighbour’s dog named Max. His difficulty even leaving the house was progressively lifted as he made the effort to walk out to see Max daily. In time, Max’s owner told Kerry that they were moving and asked him whether he would like to take Max. Of course, Kerry agreed and now what was only the good possibility of seeing Max everyday became the assured thing. Kerry continued to make progress. And then Kerry does something that makes him really a hero, too, he begins to share Max with others, by meet and greets, by events to raise funds for charity, for example. Kerry finally places Max on his own Facebook page and inspires hundreds, if not thousands of people to take comfort in Max’s great love of Kerry and life itself. 


And this brings us to our guest for today, Amy Dicken from the PDSA. 


What is fascinating about the story of Max the dog is the way he, by just being his open, friendly, loyal dog-self helped Kerry to overcome his struggles with anxiety and depression, and then, the way that Kerry found a way to share Max with whomever really wanted to be touched by the kindness and love of this dog. We think too of the kindness of Kerry’s neighbour, who, when they were about to move away offered Max to Kerry, knowing how much the dog meant to him.

Max has ended up, through the pandemic, and through the power of the internet and social media to uplift the spirits of many, many people. You might yourself find it fun to get to know Max and Kerry. The link to meet Max is included on our Facebook page.

They are all heroes in their own ways, aren’t they? A story of heroes reaching out to others, being grateful for what they have been given. Looking for ways to make things right. Happy to help someone feel better and move forward. Max is just being Max. But in so doing, he is, without a doubt, a hero.

And I think we have just stumbled upon a new radio show: By the Love of Dogs Good Things Happen!